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How dogs read your body language

Anyone who’s ever welcomed a furry bundle of joy into their home knows that our canine companions can be a lot more perceptive than at first meets the eye.

Maybe you’ve been feeling down in the past and your dog immediately began whimpering and offered you a cuddle. Or maybe you were happy and excited, and they began wagging their tail and jumping for joy.

From mirroring our emotions, to supporting us in difficult times, or becoming nervous when we’re irritated, our dogs have an uncanny ability to read us like an open book.

Throughout a huge chunk of our history as human beings, dogs have been right there by our side. We’ve grown together and have come to understand each other very well. But how does your dog actually read your body language, anyway?

Let’s take a look.

Dog looks forward and offers paw

Dogs aren’t too interested in faces (but they will pay attention to yours)

When we humans are chatting and connecting with one another, we’ll typically pay a lot of attention to each other’s facial expressions. So, it’s only natural that we’d expect our dogs to do the same, right?

The truth appears more complicated. A 2020 article in the Journal of Neuroscience found that dogs showed no difference in brain activity when looking at a face, versus the back of a head. It seems like something about facial expressions just doesn’t much excite our canine companions as a rule.

In a strange twist, though, other research has found that dogs are very good at reading human social cues, including facial expressions. So, it looks like our dogs can and will make a real effort to read our facial expressions, but generally prefer to focus on other things if left to their own devices.

There’s another interesting note to this story as well. A 2017 study found that dogs increase their own facial expressiveness significantly when humans are paying attention to them. This suggests that your pup’s adorable expressions may be intentional attempts to communicate with you, and not just involuntary reflexes.

Adorable puppy making eye contact

Eye contact may actually be a powerful source of bonding between dog and owner

It’s long been said that eye contact is a sign of aggression for dogs, and that it’s best to avoid looking directly into a dog’s eyes for that reason.

In a fascinating development, however, a 2015 study found that when owners and dogs gazed into each other’ eyes, the dogs experienced elevated levels of the hormone oxytocin – generally associated with feelings of warmth, affection, and connection.

The same study also found that hand-raised wolves lacked this reaction to human eye contact – which suggests that this is a special feature of human-dog bonding.

Another study published in 2016 in the journal PLOS ONE shone even more light on the power of human-dog eye contact, by finding that dogs relied “on the whole combination of visual cues and especially on the owners’ availability to make eye contact” when trying to get to unreachable food.

While it’s still likely a good idea to avoid looking strange dogs in the eyes, eye contact with your own dog may be a very meaningful form of communication and connection.

Two dogs sitting together in a field

Your dog doesn’t expect you to have the body language or mannerisms of a dog (they know you’re a unique case)

As the previous points show, our dogs are very good at adapting their own behaviours and body language to our unique body language cues, instead of just expecting us to have the same body language as other dogs.

Considering that a 2015 study found evidence that the reward centres in dogs’ brains light up when they smell familiar humans, but not when they smell familiar dogs or unfamiliar humans, it seems pretty clear that dogs see their owners in a unique light.

Dogs pick up on your emotions more easily the longer you’ve been living together

Just as human beings tend to grow closer together the more time they spend together, so too do dogs grow closer to their owners over time.

One 2019 study found evidence that the longer dogs have been living with their owners, the more they pick up on, and mirror, their owners’ emotions.

It might be the case that this is partly down to your dog developing a strong emotional connection to you, and partly down to them becoming familiar with your unique expressions, gestures, moods, and communication style over time.

Honourable mention: your tone of voice matters a lot to your dog

Even though tone of voice isn’t ‘body language’ in the strict sense, it deserves an honourable mention all the same – because your tone of voice certainly matters to your dog.

A 2018 study published in Animal Cognition found that dogs appear to prefer, and to respond better to, ‘Dog-Directed Speech’ (DDS) than to ‘Adult-Directed Speech’ (ADS).

In other words, your dog really does like all that “who’s a good boy?!” baby talk, instead of being spoken to like someone you’re about to share a business proposal with.

Dog and human cuddling

It’s all about the journey you take together

From their powerful ability to sense the fluctuations in our tone of voice, to the adaptations they’ve picked up over time that separate them from their wolf cousins, our dogs have an amazing ability to know how we’re feeling. But if there’s one key thing to take away from this article, it’s the fact that so much of the understanding that exists between our dogs and ourselves is rooted in the powerful bonds we form over time.

As with all meaningful relationships, it’s the journey that you and your dog take together through life that makes the real difference. The countless games of fetch and the walks come rain or shine. The cuddles and the games. The emotional highs and lows, and all the memories along the way.

At YuMOVE, we’re dedicated to making those priceless moments with your dog last a lifetime. Whether by supporting their joints with YuMOVE Joint Care, by soothing their stress with YuMOVE Calming Care, or by supporting their digestive health with YuMOVE Digestive Care, we hope you’ll try our range. Discover how we can help brighten your dog’s life today.

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